June 29, 2021

What are ‘Pet Nat’ wines? Should you be drinking them?

lees in pet nat
The sediment in an undisgorged bottle of sparkling wine.

A ‘Pet Nat’ wine is one with natural petillance or ‘pétillant naturel’. Simply put, it is a wine with bubbles! 

More specifically, it is a sparkling wine made using the ancestral method or méthode ancestrale. They come in a full range of colours white, rosé and red and a range of sweetness levels. Some may be full bodied and rich, others will be light and fruitier.

They are made in most countries around the world and if your interest lies in English wines, there is a slew of English wines to choose from if you know where to find them. A great one to start with is the Vagabond Pet Not!

These wines are categorised as natural wines as they are often made with very little intervention. Like many other natural wine styles, they are wines made using revived historic wine making methods. Sometimes with a modern twist. 

Pet Nat quality relies very much on the skill of the winemaker

And like many others in this category of wines, the finished wines may vary wildly to what you, winelovers, will expect on your first sip. In fact, ‘wild’ can be a good description for these wines. 

It is the unpredictability of the process and the character of the finished wine that gives the Pet Nat’s it wild, and ‘varied’ reputation. Sometimes you might purchase a wine that is, in fact, still fermenting. 

This is why you should also be careful to choose a Pet Nat from a very experienced winemaker. Often these wines use minimum intervention techniques and as a result  bacterial infections can ruin the final result. It takes a very skilled natural winemaker to ensure the final product has not picked up a bacterial ‘taint’ along the way.

The wines cannot be tested once they are in the bottle. They can be the very definition of a wine ‘in progress’, where much can go awry. 

Ancestral method vs Traditional method

When wines ferment, they produce not only alcohol which remains in the wine but also carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is not usually desired in a still wine and needs to be very carefully vented from any tank or vat where the ferment is taking place. It is however, retained at some part of the process for a sparkling wine

Ancestral method wines are made using the technique where the wines are bottled with some residual unfermented sugar. They continue to ferment in the bottle and the carbon dioxide captured, to be only released when poured in your glass. The technique is also called méthode rurale.

Don’t forget Tank method…

The better known sparkling wines, such as Champagne, Cava and Prosecco, are made using a base of already fermented still wines and adding a sugar and yeast solution to start a second ferment in the bottle or tank, where the carbon dioxide is captured. Whereas Prosecco most typically has this second ferment in a sealed tank (called ‘tank method’) the finest sparkling wines have that ferment occur in a bottle. Usually the bottle they are then sold in.

When that ferment occurs in the bottle using what is known as the ‘traditional method’ or méthode traditionale. Traditional method produces a wine with small and fine bubbles that continue to lazily trail from the bottom of the glass. Incidentally, that is also why those wines require their corks to be secured with a wire cage. Or sealed with a crown cap like a beer. As an additional safety measure, they also have thicker bottles.

Ancestral method wines tend to have a softer style of bubble due to lower bottle pressure. 

They often have a layer of sediment in the base which can disperse back into the wine and make the wine hazy.

To disgorge or not disgorge?

A wine that has been disgorged is one that has had the yeast cells removed from the wine before sale. In most sparkling wines, those yeast cells have finished feeding on the sugars in the wine and have died. At this point the dead yeast cells form part of the sediment called ‘lees’. Contact with the lees adds a sense of richness plus flavours and aromas to wines depending on how long the wine remains in contact with the lees

For instance, a traditional method sparkling wine tends to have at least 9 months lees contact in the case of Cava, or at least 18 months for a non-vintage Champagne. Interestingly, a fine Champagne could have 10+ years on lees and develop a lush creaminess yet still retain its youthful vitality. This is because in those instances, the wine has not had the influx of oxygen at the time of disgorgement that may influence the wine’s character.

Whether a Pet Nat wine is clear, or has been disgorged or not, is up to the winemaker. Obviously, removing the lees will mean that the wine will ferment no more. The wine should then remain unchanged except for more traditional bottle maturity characters. It is a process that is labour intensive and expensive in comparison so it may also be out of reach for many winemakers.

Serving a Pet Nat

If the wine has been disgorged, then your bottle of pet nat can be served like any other sparkling wine. 

However, if it is, as they often are, still on lees the wine needs to be chilled standing upright for at least an hour or more. Chilling the wine helps keep the sediment in the bottom of the bottle. You need to carefully open the wine without disturbing the yeast cloud and then just as carefully pour the wine into a glass. You might find the final glass will be quite cloudy. That cloudiness is fine to drink and it is up to you if you drink it or not.

If a wine is undisgorged, you will need to let it sit for at least an hour in the fridge to let the sediment settle and then very carefully open and pour it.

What to drink it with?

Well, that is easy. Anything that you would a sparkling wine with! And sparkling wine can be matched with almost everything. I feel that bubbles widen the scope of food and wine matching. Just remember lighter flavours with lighter flavours and vice versa. 

If you are all out of ideas, start with tapas or appetisers, or maybe keep it basic like grilled chicken and salad. Or zhoush it up with some grilled scallops. A full flavoured wine can be an excellent match to duck pancakes or a game pie that is lightly sauced. 

Are they as bubbly as Champagne or Sparkling wine?

Generally, no. Not quite as bubbly. Nat Pet wines are usually under 5 atmospheres in pressure whereas a sparkling wine made using the ‘traditional’ method is usually between 5-6 atmospheres or maybe slightly higher. Cava, although made using traditional method, has a minimum of 4 atmospheres. 

The lower pressure gives a softer feel to the wine. This softness is further enhanced often by a slug of sugar.

For reference, 5-6 atmospheres is a lot higher than the tyre pressure needed for my car.

Sweetness

A Pet Nat that is still on lees and is a newly bottled vintage may still be have unfermented sugars. They may be sweeter because of it. There is the potential that the wine will start to ferment again in the right conditions. If you had two freshly bottled wines, you could even leave one in a warm spot for a few days before opening both to see if there is much difference.

It is also likely that the wines will be a little sweeter in style than a Brut or drier style of sparkling wine. If the wine has stopped fermenting, it may also have stopped fermenting early leaving it sweeter.

Some notable regions for pet nat

The South-West French region of Gaillac AOC produces many pet nat wines. Often they use their endemic grape, Mauzac which seems to work well in this style of wine. The Languedoc region of Limoux has a separate appellation for their pet nat wines. Look for Limoux Méthode Ancestrale AOC.

You will also be able to find ancestral method wine versions of Prosecco. Here you should look for some Col Fondo wines. Some are produced using a second ferment in the bottle like traditional method sparklings, however, they sell the wine without disgorging. 

Want to know more about ‘natural wines’? Why not read …
Why you should be drinking Organic Champagne!
Sulphite in wine. The Truth: Are Sulphur-free wines any good?

see vagabond wines for more information.

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